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Author's Note: This recipe appears in my book, The One-Bottle Cocktail: More Than 80 Recipes With Fresh Ingredients and a Single Spirit, which is available for preorder now. I hope you like it!
This cocktail is a delightfully simple thing: apple cider, lemon, spirit, and fizz. The apple-y core comes from the kind of cider you find at the orchard when you're picking (or the refrigerator aisle of the grocery store when you're not). The fizz isn't pricey sparkling wine: Instead, you'll use standard sparkling cider, like Martinelli's, to lighten the drink and give it an extra apple dimension. With a bright splash of lemon, the combination is as crisp as an Empire or Jonathan, balanced with a rich toffee undercurrent from aged rum, such as Appleton Estate Reserve from Jamaica. This cocktail, which was created by A. Minetta Gould of Saint Ellie in Denver, doesn't need nutmeg or other baking spices in the mix; the rum adds all those flavors on its own. If you generally don't think of rum as the perfect fall or winter spirit, this concoction will change your mind.
But you don't need to stop there. This drink offers a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure. You can sub out the rum for Scotch to give it a whisper of malt and smoke, or go with rye for a peppery take on the combination. Some people might want a touch of simple syrup or honey syrup in the whiskey versions; if you like your drinks on the dry side, don't add any, but if you find the basic formula a little too austere, try adding a quarter ounce of 1:1 simple or honey syrup per serving. (The rum version won't need it.)
If you have time to play bartender, set up all three bottles and invite your guests to try whichever version strikes their fancy. Making this drink one at a time is about as straightforward as it gets, but when you're hosting more than a few people, you may prefer to have the options prepped in advance. You can combine the rum (or Scotch or rye), fresh cider, and lemon up to two hours ahead of time, then stash the mix in your fridge. Quantity-wise, you'll just multiply each ingredient by the number of drinks you want to make. So, if you want 10 servings, you'll need 15 ounces of rum (or whiskey), seven and a half ounces of fresh apple cider, and five ounces of lemon. Then make sure you have an ounce per serving of sparkling cider chilled and ready.
I like to use a resealable swing-top bottle for easy pouring. You may want to have a funnel on hand to get it in there. To make sure the mix stays cold and the lemon juice tastes good as long as possible, I keep the bottle in an ice-filled bucket while I'm serving. (Though if it's not going to be out all afternoon or evening, I wouldn't worry too much about this.) The lemon is the limiting factor in your batching-ahead time, too; I don't love the flavor once it's been much more than four or five hours since squeezing. So making the batch two hours in advance of your guests' arrival and keeping it chilled will give you a nice serving window.
Fill your cocktail shaker with ice (not just a few cubes!), and shake two drinks at a time—that's five and a half ounces of the mix. Then divide the mix between two Champagne flutes, using a cocktail strainer (plus a fine-mesh strainer if you want to be sure to catch every last little ice chip). Top each drink with fizzy cider and a star anise garnish, or balance an apple chip on each glass if you want to really bring your A (is for apple) game.